Viet Thanh Nguyen | History, Identity, Politics, and the Art of Writing || Radcliffe Institute

Viet Thanh Nguyen | History, Identity, Politics, and the Art of Writing || Radcliffe Institute


– Good afternoon, everyone. I’m delighted to
welcome you here to the Radcliffe Institute. I’m Liz Cohen. I’m Dean of the
Institute, and I’m glad to see such a
great crowd here today. I’d like to extend a special
welcome to a Harvard Advanced Fiction Writing class who
is here with their teacher, Claire Messud, who
is also a novelist, well-known and
respected novelist, and a former Radcliffe fellow. So where is that class? There they are, great. [APPLAUSE] Happy to have you here. This afternoon for
our annual Dean’s Lecture in the Humanities, I
am delighted to have Viet Thanh Nguyen, also a former Radcliffe
fellow, back at the Institute to delve into the topic of
history, identity, politics, and the art of writing. Viet has set out quite an agenda
for us to contemplate together. After his talk, Viet will
engage in a conversation with yet another distinguished
writer and former Radcliffe fellow, Gish Jen. I am grateful to both Viet and
Gish for joining us here today. As Harvard’s Institute
for Advanced Study, Radcliffe fosters
interdisciplinary inquiry, innovative research, and the
creation of art in many forms. We are also dedicated to sharing
that work with the public through lectures, through
conferences, panel discussions, and exhibitions. Today, we are fortunate to have
with us two writers whose work demonstrates remarkable
breadth and depth, and who exemplify
the kind of boundary crossing that we take
pride in at Radcliffe. Both Viet Thanh
Nguyen and Gish Jen write fiction and nonfiction. They are scholars and
artists, and they are just as adept at scouring
the archives as they are at mining their own
experiences and imaginations. Viet is a professor, a cultural
critic, and a fiction writer. He earned his PhD in
English from the University of California at Berkeley. And he has spent
the last two decades at the University of
Southern California where he holds the
Arnold Chair of English as well as professorships in the
Department of American Studies and Ethnicity and the Department
of Comparative Literature. Viet also serves as a
member of the steering committee of USC’s Center
for Transpacific Studies. Viet is a critic-at-large
for the Los Angeles Times and a contributing opinion
writer for The New York Times. His essays have appeared
in publications, including Time Magazine, The
Guardian, and The Atlantic. Viet is the author of Race
and Resistance, Literature and Politics in Asian America. He is co-editor of the
anthology Transpacific Studies, Framing an Emerging Field. And he is editor of a
forthcoming collection of essays, The Displaced,
Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. Viet’s debut novel
entitled The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize
for Fiction in 2016, and too many other
awards to list here. That same year, he published
the nonfiction book Nothing Ever Dies, Vietnam and
the Memory of War, which was a finalist for
the National Book Award. Then in 2017, Viet released
a critically acclaimed short story collection
entitled The Refugees, and it received both a
Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Genius Grant. I’d say that makes for a pretty
impressive couple years, Viet. And I wonder, do you ever sleep? Joyce Carol Oates has
described Viet as, and I quote her, “one
of our great chroniclers of displacement,” end quote. It’s a fitting characterization. Viet, who himself came
to the United States as a refugee from Vietnam
at the age of four, has dedicated much
of his life’s work to probing how the Vietnam War
is remembered and represented and to investigating the
experiences of those displaced from that war. In Nothing Ever
Dies, Viet observes, and I quote, “all
wars are fought twice. The first time on the
battlefield and the second time in memory,” end quote. Much of his writing
interrogates that latter fight. He sheds light on aspects
of the Vietnam War’s social and political
history that might otherwise have escaped critical analysis. That includes
collective remembrance of the war in both the United
States and Southeast Asia through forms of
popular culture, such as literature,
film, and memorials. In doing so, Viet shows
us that memory is dynamic, and that the way we
come to understand war is shaped by ideology, by
individual and national identity, by power structures,
and by the industries of war and memory. Viet grapples with these issues
using the distinctive lenses of different kinds of writing,
the short story, the novel, the essay, the op-ed, and more. With so much
nimbleness as a writer, he strategically selects the
form best suited to his message and to his audience. Viet’s work, both
fiction and nonfiction, captures the experiences
and the perspectives of Vietnamese soldiers,
Vietnamese refugees, and Vietnamese Americans. He develops the full
complexity of his characters and his plotlines to
avoid exaggerated heroism and simplistic motivation. In Viet’s hands, people
are rendered with subtlety, and the Vietnam War becomes
the multi-faceted, political, cultural, and historical
confrontation between the US and Vietnam that it truly was. Take as an example his debut
novel, The Sympathizer. The protagonist and
narrator in The Sympathizer illustrates Viet’s ability
to explore complex dualities within a single individual. This nameless double
agent, undercover as a South Vietnamese
Army captain, flees Saigon and resettles
in Southern California. He is torn not only between his
covert mission and his cover identity, but also between his
homeland and the United States, between his French and
Vietnamese ancestries, and between his position as
the betrayer and the betrayed. For Viet, these personal
dualities powerfully illuminate larger complexities
of ethnic identity, of war displacement, and
of the refugee experience. Gish Jen has explored closely
related aspects of identity, culture, and history. In her novels and
short stories, she has written about immigration
and the hyphenated American experience, while
also challenging what typically has been
characterized as ethnic writing and what has not. Gish grew up as the child
of Chinese immigrant parents and went on to graduate
from Radcliffe College and to earn an MFA in fiction
writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is a member of the American
Academy of Arts and Sciences, and she was the recipient of the
Academy’s prestigious Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Award
and many other top honors. Most recently, she
received a Legacy Award from the Museum of Chinese
in America in New York. Gish was in residence
as a bunting fellow here at Radcliffe when
she wrote her first novel, Typical American. She returned again. This time, it was the Radcliffe
Institute in 2001- 2002 to work on her third novel
entitled The Love Wife. And I was lucky enough to
be one of her fellow fellows that year. Gish has authored two other
novels, Mona in the Promised Land and World and Town, as well
as a short fiction collection entitled Who’s Irish? Her short stories
have been anthologized in many textbooks
and collections, including multiple
anthologies of the best American short stories,
including, most notably, The Best American Short
Stories of the Century. Recently, Gish has turned
her talents to nonfiction, including Tiger Writing, Art,
Culture, and the Interdependent Self, and just last year, The
Girl at the Baggage Claim, Explaining the
East-West Culture Gap. In these books, Gish
brilliantly probes differences in Western and Eastern
conceptions of self and their implications for
identity, family, and community relationships, for
art, and for much more. I am thrilled to have both Viet
and Gish with us here today in dialogue with one another
as two exceptional writers who focus our attention in a very
nuanced way to both fiction and nonfiction on compelling
issues of history, identity, politics, and the
art of writing. So now, please join me in
warmly welcoming Viet Thanh Nguyen to the podium. [APPLAUSE] – Thank you for that
incredible introduction, Liz. It’s such an honor to be
here and a real pleasure to be back here after
having been a fellow here several years ago. And now, the most
important thing I got to do, though,
before everything starts– can’t help it. I’m Asian. [LAUGHTER] I’m not going to actually
exhaustively talk about history, identity,
politics, and so on. I’m really going to talk
about– for just about 15 or 20 minutes– about how those things
have intersected with writing and
with my life, and how I’ve become a writer
and a scholar who has tried to take
all those things and work with them,
simultaneously. And the reason why history,
identity, and politics have been so important
to me as a writer is not simply because I’m Asian,
but because I’m a refugee. And the history of being
a refugee and the impact of that experience on
my family and my life has been something that
has marked me indelibly from the moment that
my memory has begun. And my memories began as a
four-year-old coming here to Fort Indiantown
Gap, Pennsylvania as a refugee with my parents. And being separated from my
parents at four years of age and being sent to live with
a white sponsor family, that was the way to get
out of the refugee camp. And so that’s when
memory begins. And that’s also when forgetting
begins as well for me, because I spent much
of my life trying to forget that experience
of separation and of trauma and trying to forget what
it meant to lose a country. And then as a writer
and as a scholar, I’ve been trying to remember
what those things mean for me. So I’ll just start off with
the couple of first paragraphs from this book,
Nothing Ever Dies. And I will tell you
a little bit about me and what I think of my work. “I was born in Vietnam
but made in America. I count myself among
those Vietnamese dismayed by America’s
deeds but tempted to believe in its words. I also count myself among those
Americans who often do not know what to make
of Vietnam and want to know what to make of it. Americans, as well as many
people the world over, tend to mistake Vietnam with
the war named in his honor, or dishonor as the case may be. This confusion has no doubt led
to some of my own uncertainty about what it means to be
a man with two countries as well as the inheritor
of two revolutions. Today, the Vietnamese
and American revolutions manufacture memories only
to absolve the hardening of their arteries. For those of us who
consider ourselves to be inheritors of one or
both of these revolutions, we have to know how
we make memories and how we forget them, so that
we can beat their hearts back to life.” So for me, my journey
into being someone who could write these
past three books has been an intensely
personal journey. It’s not only been a journey
as a writer and as a scholar, but it’s been as
someone who has never been able to forget the
questions of history, identity, and of politics and
how to try to bring all those things together in
the act of writing itself. And the reason why
it’s personal is because I was never
at a time in my life when I wasn’t being reminded
of history and of difference in one way or another. So after we had settled in
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for about three
years, my parents made the wonderful decision
to move to California. And we settled in San
Jose, California in 1978, and my parents opened, perhaps,
the second Vietnamese grocery store in San Jose, California. And we lived in
downtown San Jose. And downtown San Jose is
not like downtown San Jose of today. Back then, it was a very rough
and violent neighborhood. And I remember walking down the
street from my parents’ store and seeing a sign in
another window that said, another
American driven out of business by the Vietnamese. And I was, perhaps,
10 or 11 years old, and that was one of
the things that I both remembered and forgot. I put that away in my
memory for many years, because I didn’t know what
to make out of that sign. And I’ve spent many
years trying to make sense of what that sign meant. And that sign, as
short as it was, contained an entire epic
story about what America was, who belonged to this
country, and the fact that Vietnamese people
did not belong here. And not just Vietnamese
people, but, obviously, it was a matter of
fill in the blank. Another American
driven out of business by fill in the blank, Chinese,
Japanese, Koreans, and so on. Well, what happened was that
the reason why my parents opened this grocery store
in downtown San Jose was because no one else
wanted to open a grocery store in downtown San Jose. In the 1970s and the 1980s,
many of the businesses that were opened were opened
by Vietnamese refugees. And the city didn’t care
about downtown San Jose. Then something called
Silicon Valley happened, and all of a sudden,
tax money started to come in to San
Jose, California. And in the early 2000s,
San Jose City Hall thought, well, maybe we should
transform San Jose downtown into something more worthy
of the Silicon Valley. So they decided to
build a new City Hall. Where do you think they decided
to put the new City Hall? They built it right across the
street from my parents’ store. Now, in order to
make that happen, City Hall had to dispossess
many of these Vietnamese refugee shopkeepers,
including my parents. And I thought for
many, many years afterwards that what they did
was to raise my parents’ store and build a parking garage. And this was a store in which
my parents had been working 12 to 14 hour days,
every day of the year, except for Christmas,
Easter, and New Years. This was a store
in which my parents were shot on Christmas Eve. And to think that the city had
erased this business where they had sacrificed themselves
and had erased their legacy was very painful for me. So for many years,
whenever I would return to downtown San
Jose, I would never actually go to this location. I would always drive around it. Well, then something
else happened– was that I won the
Pulitzer Prize. So then City Hall thought
it would be a great idea to invite me back and
give me a commendation. And I thought,
great, I’ll take it. I always take every
award that’s given to me. But I’m going to
tell this story. And so I finally went
back to downtown San Jose, to this location
where my parents had shed their blood
and their tears, and I realized there was
no parking garage there. There was a parking lot. And there’s a line in The
Sympathizer where I say, America’s most original
contribution to architecture is the parking lot. And I thought, this was
why I became a writer. It wasn’t simply that
we had been erased in some abstract way
from American history, or that we’d been erased
in an abstract way from Vietnamese
history in Vietnam. We had been erased
in very concrete ways in our own history here in
this country, my parents. And as I was growing up
in San Jose in the 1980s, I knew that these stories
and these erasures were enormously meaningful,
but I didn’t have a way to give articulation to them. So for example, I
remember in the 1980s, there was something
called the VCR. And my parents bought a VCR. And because they were
working 12 to 14 hour days, they used a VCR as a
way of babysitting me. So after I watched Star Wars
a dozen times, I went out, and I got a movie
called Apocalypse Now. I was about 11 or 12 years old. I watched many
inappropriate things when I was 11 or 12
years old on this VCR. And I was an American. I grew up feeling
that in my parents’ very Vietnamese household,
I was an American spying on these Vietnamese people. And when I was outside
in the American world, I was a Vietnamese spying
on these Americans. So when I was watching
Apocalypse Now, I came to it as an American,
as an American boy who loved American war
movies, and I identified with American soldiers. And in this case, I identified
with the American soldiers up until a point they started
killing Vietnamese civilians. And then I was split in two. Later, I would go to a
very elite high school in San Jose that
was mostly white, except for a handful of us
who were of Asian descent. And we would gather
in a corner at lunch and call ourselves
the Asian invasion. [LAUGHTER] At least it wasn’t
the yellow peril. [LAUGHTER] It wasn’t until
I got to Berkeley and became instantly
radicalized– literally, the moment I set foot on campus. But I learned that
there was something called Asian Americans. It’s only a name, but
it’s an entire story. It’s an entire narrative. And it totally
transformed my sense of who I was and my
place in American society and the possibilities of me
being able to tell stories. And one of the first
books that I encountered when I stepped foot in
the city of Berkeley was Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club. And then just a
couple of years later, I found Typical
American by Gish Jen. And these were momentous
events in the life of someone who had called himself
part of the Asian invasion. No. We were Asian Americans. And this is what I mean by
history, identity, politics, and the art of writing. To become a writer, I
had to try to figure out not just how to write
stories, but how to talk about history, identity,
politics, simultaneously. And the challenge was
that these were not things that were being taught
to us as budding writers. What was being taught to
us was the art of writing and the beauty of literature. And there’s no doubt that all
those things are important. That’s why I became an English
major when I was at Berkeley. But there was no
way that I thought that I could become a writer. There was no way that
I thought I could become an English professor. I would have to go home and tell
my parents who were working 12 to 14 hour days,
hey, mom and dad, I want to spend my life studying
Jane Austen and the Romantics. It wasn’t going to work. It wasn’t going to work. So encountering Asian
American literature and becoming an ethnic
studies major as well were enormously
crucial to my sense that writing stories
could also include the history, the identity,
the politics that were so fundamentally important
to me and that had shaped me. And I had set out
on a quest then to try to figure out how to
put all these things together, because it seemed
to me at that time that the state of contemporary
American literature, dominant contemporary
American literature, wasn’t that interested in
history, identity, or politics. And I was a writer
who wanted to try to figure out how to do
these things simultaneously. And I became a professor. And as a professor, you could
talk about history, identity, and politics. But if you’ve read any recent
works of literary criticism or cultural criticism, you’ll
know that they’re also not about the art of writing. So part of my
challenge to become a writer, my kind
of a writer, was to be a writer who could be
both a novelist who could write critical fiction, and a critic
who could write creatively as well. And so that’s how I came to
the book Nothing Ever Dies. So I’m just going to
read you an excerpt from this book that
talks about all of these issues in a very,
hopefully, personal way and about the memory,
the act of remembering that is so crucial to that
book and to my life in general. “As a Gook, in the
eyes of some, I can testify that being
remembered as the other is a dismembering
experience, what we can call a disremembering. Disremembering is not simply
the failure to remember. Disremembering is the
unethical and paradoxical mode of forgetting at the
same time as remembering, or from the perspective of the
other who is disremembered, of being simultaneously
seen and not seen. Disremembering allows someone
to see right through the other, an experience
rendered so memorably by Ralph Ellison in the
opening pages of Invisible Man. His narrator, the
titular hero, runs into a white man who
refuses to see him, and enraged, strikes back to
force the white man to see him. Even beaten, however,
the white man refuses to see him the
way he wishes to be seen. That is because the other’s
use of physical force may make the other visible, but
only to turn him into a target. The other must deploy
the psychic forces of remembering,
imagining, and narrating if the other wishes to
transform the ways of seeing. Not satisfied with
being disremembered, we, who are others,
find that it is up to us to remember ourselves. Having carried ourselves over
or been brought over from the other side, we Gooks, we
goo-goos, we slopes, we dinks, we zipperheads, we slant-eyes,
we yellow ones, we brown ones, we Japs, we Chinks, we ragheads,
we sand niggers, we Orientals, we who cannot be distinguished
between ourselves because we all look alike– we know that the
condition of our being and our self-representation
is that we are both ourselves and others. We are never without identity
and never without ideology, whether we like it or not,
whether we acknowledge it or not. Those people who
believe themselves to be beyond
identity and ideology will, sooner or later, charge
us with identity and ideology if we dare commit that most
unnatural act of speaking up and speaking out.” So my work as a scholar
and as a fiction writer has been about trying to think
through identity and ideology, simultaneously. This belief that we are
never without an identity, even if we refuse to
acknowledge our identity, and this belief that to be a
writer who believes in history, identity, and
politics is to believe in the act of writing as
an ideological act as well. That identity is important
but insufficient. That ideology is
critical but also insufficient without
identity as well. And so I’ll end with an
excerpt from The Sympathizer where I try to bring
these things together through the act of
fiction, because I imagined the novel The
Sympathizer as a novel that is about history and identity
and politics and writing, and is a novel that is also
an act of criticism as well. Hopefully, you’ll also have
some fun along the way. So for those of
you who don’t know, The Sympathizer is about a
communist spy in the South Vietnamese Army in April 1975. And his mission is to flee
with the remnants of that Army to the United States where his
task is to spy on their efforts to take their country back. So in order to do that, he
has to become a refugee. And then one of the
things that he has to do is survive in the United States. And one of the jobs
that he gets is to become the
authenticity consultant on the making of a movie
that looks suspiciously like Apocalypse Now. [LAUGHTER] But if Francis Ford Coppola
or his lawyers are to ask, it’s not Apocalypse Now. [LAUGHTER] And it really isn’t. Apocalypse Now is an
easy target for me. But that really is an example of
what I mean by disremembering, because it wasn’t as if in
looking at that movie or any of the American movies
about the Vietnam War– of which there were dozens
in the ’80s and ’90s, and I saw most of them,
which is an exercise I recommend to nobody. In seeing them, it was clear
that the Vietnamese were not invisible. We were totally there. We were seen. But we were seen
through, and that’s the act of disremembering. But it wasn’t just
Apocalypse Now that did that. It was also all
these other movies. And in this excerpt, the
movie is called The Hamlet, and it really is a
compendium of all of these– this entire genre of
the American Vietnam War movie. And the reason why I felt
it necessary to write four chapters of
the novel about this was that no matter where
I went in this world and I told people I was
working on the Vietnam War, sooner or later
someone would say, have you seen Apocalypse Now? And they had never seen
a Vietnamese movie. And we’re still dealing
with that today. Let me tell you, don’t
ask me the question I’m about to give you. In the last few months,
no matter where I went, somebody would
inevitably ask me, have you seen that 18 hour
documentary on the Vietnam War? And guaranteed, they
had not read my book, had not read any book by a
Vietnamese person, any book by a Vietnamese
American person and not see any movie from Vietnam. That’s what we’re up
against, seen and not seen all at the same time. And so here, I take my
revenge on that perspective. My narrator meets with the
famous director known only as the Auteur. “My meeting with the Auteur
had gone on for a while longer, mostly in a more subdued
fashion with me pointing out that the lack of speaking
parts for Vietnamese people in a movie set in Vietnam
might be interpreted as cultural insensitivity. Do you not think it would be a
little more believable, I said, a little more realistic,
a little more authentic for a movie set in a certain
country for the people in that country to
have something to say, instead of having your
screenplay direct, as it does now, cut to villagers
speaking in their own language? Do you think it might not be
decent to let them actually say something instead
of simply acknowledging that there is some kind of
sound coming from their mouths? Could you not even just have
them speak a heavily accented English, you know what I mean,
ching-chong English, just to pretend that they are
speaking in an Asian language that somehow American audiences
can strangely understand? The Auteur grimaced and
said, very interesting. Great stuff. Loved it. But I had a question. What was it? Oh, yes. How many movies have you made? None. Isn’t that right? None, zero, zilch, nada,
nothing, and however you say it in your language. So thank you for telling
me how to do my job. Now, get the hell
out of my house and come back after you’ve
made a movie or two. Maybe then I’ll listen to one
or two of your cheap ideas.” Funny thing is that
since this book came out, I’ve spoken to quite
a few Hollywood people and none of them dispute
this characterization. [LAUGHTER] “I confess to being
angry with the Auteur, but was I wrong in being angry? This was especially
the case when he acknowledged he did not even
know that Montagnard was simply a French catch all term for the
dozens of Highland minorities.” The movie The Hamlet is
about American Green Berets who go to the central
Highlands and train the so-called Montagnards
to defend themselves against communism. “What if, I said to him, I wrote
a screenplay about the American West and simply called
all the natives Indians? You’d want to know whether the
cavalry was fighting the Navajo or Apache or Comanche, right? Likewise, I would
want to know, when you say these people
are Montagnards, whether we speak of the
Bru or the Nung or the Tay. Let me tell you a
secret, the Auteur said. You ready? Here it is. No one gives a shit. He was amused by
my wordlessness. To see me without
words is like seeing one of those Egyptian felines
without hair, a rare, not necessarily desirable occasion. Have could I be so dense? How could I be so deluded? I naively believed that I could
divert the Hollywood organism from its goal, the
simultaneous lobotomization and pickpocketing of
the world’s audiences. Hollywood did not just
make war movie monsters. It was its own
horror movie monster, smashing me under its foot. I had failed, and the
Auteur would make The Hamlet as he intended, with my
countrymen serving merely as raw material for an
epic about white men saving good yellow people
from bad yellow people. I pity the French
for their naivete in believing they had to visit a
country in order to exploit it. Hollywood was much
more efficient imagining the countries
it wanted to exploit. I was maddened by
my helplessness before the Auteur’s
imagination and machinations. His arrogance marked
something new in the world, for this was the first war where
the losers would write history instead of the victors,
courtesy of the most efficient propaganda
machine ever created, with all due respect to
Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis who never achieved
global domination. Hollywood’s high
priests understood innately the observation
of Milton’s Satan, that it was better to rule
in Hell than serve in Heaven. Better to be villain,
loser, or antihero than virtuous extra, so long as
one commanded the bright lights of center stage. In this forthcoming
Hollywood trompe l’oeil, all the Vietnamese of any
side would come out poorly, herded into the roles of the
poor, the innocent, the evil, or the corrupt. Our fate was not
to be merely mute, we were to be struck dumb.” Thank you. [APPLAUSE] – Viet, let me just
say, first of all, that was just wonderful. And welcome to Cambridge. It’s great to have you here. I think we’re all interested
in how you got to this point where you were able to
make us all give a shit. And in your journey– so I’d like to talk
about that journey today, starting with, if I may–
start with your days at Berkeley and your grades. You did take a class with
Maxine Hong Kingston there and– creative writing class. And you did get a B. – A B-plus. – A B-plus. [LAUGHTER] – Now it comes out. I was really worried. I don’t know if you have
great inflation there the way we do here. But a B here is not
an F, but it is a C. [LAUGHTER] – So I’m relieved to hear
that you got a B-plus. And a very interesting
part, I think, of the story is also that you slept in
her class every time it met. – Well, I think the
important part to acknowledge is that it was a class of 14
students, in which I sat here, and she sat there. And I fell asleep every
single day in that class. – And you sat next to
her, and you fell asleep. She also did say that you
never contributed, because that goes along with being asleep. [LAUGHTER] – Well, she wrote me a very long
note at the end of the class. – And she had a little advice
to you in that note, right? – Well, she said, you seem to
be very alienated, which I was. And she said, maybe
you should make use of Cal’s excellent
counseling services. And thankfully, I did
not take her advice. Part of how I get anybody
to give a shit if they do is that I stopped giving a fuck. And I was alienated when
I was an undergraduate, because I was confused
for all the reasons that I talked about. I was trying to make sense
of myself as a person, as an Asian American, as a
student, as a writer, as a son. And all of that was wrapped up
in so many kinds of anxieties. And that was about caring about
what other people thought. I got a B-plus. That’s unacceptable, right? – You don’t have
to be so defensive, because I’m just ripping you. It’s funny today. But it actually
gets to something. I think there are a lot of
students here in this crowd, and it’s always very interesting
what works in the classroom and what doesn’t. And what I’m wondering
today– because, of course, we could say, he was a bum. He slept every day. And what’s the matter with him? But I have to say that today,
I wonder whether really sitting there at your young
age– were you 19, 20– where you were already feeling
some anxiety of influence. You weren’t just a bum. So there you were. I don’t need to explain to this
crowd how anxiety influences– Harold Bloom’s idea that we
need to kill our predecessors. I, myself clear across the
country felt this with Maxine, and I think I said so in an
interview with the result that the first time
I met her, she said, I had read that you
wanted to kill me. [LAUGHTER] I said, oh God, no. I’m so sorry, Maxine. But in fact, of course, many
writers have had this feeling. It’s just the Southern writers
feel this way about Faulkner. Flannery O’Connor
famously said, we have to differentiate
ourselves from Faulkner. You don’t want
your mule and cart on the same tracks the
Dixie Limited came down. And I wonder if for you it
was a supremely bad choice for your first
creative writing class to be in class where
you’re not only with the preeminent Asian
American writer, but a woman who, because of her
peace work, whose name was synonymous with Vietnam. And there she is. And she owns Vietnam, and
she’s not even Vietnamese. And I’m wondering if that
was a contributor to why you shut down. – Well, I think that may
definitely be the case, but it wasn’t articulate
for myself at the time. We read Chinaman, for
example, in her class. And Chinaman, part of it is
very much about the Vietnam War. There’s a great
chapter in there called “The Brother from Vietnam.” But the funny thing was
I didn’t remember that. It took me many, many years
to come back to that book and to realize that the
brother from Vietnam is absolutely crucial
to my own thinking. Maybe you should put
a seed in my head by having me read that work. And I think that the thing is
I have influences definitely there, because she represented
Asian American literature. She represented a
particular approach to peace and reconciliation. And at the time, I was trying
to be an Asian American writer as you were saying, but also
rebelling against this notion of peace and reconciliation. I was an angry Asian
American activist. I was storming the
president’s office. Now, I’m sitting
with the president. So it’s a really
weird transformation. But at the time, I was like,
let’s have a revolution. I’m not interested in
nuances and ambiguities. I want some clarity
at 19 years old. And so it took a couple of
decades of revisiting her work to understand that it was
enormously influential, enormously important. And that part of why it took so
long to become a writer for me was about learning the
art, but of also learning emotional maturity to be able
to confront some of the things that she was talking about. – But it’s such a
great example, I think, when people think, who
should I study with? On the surface of it, it would
have been what a perfect match. Maxine Hong Kingston is there. She’s so gentle. She’s so loving. She’s interested in Vietnam. On the surface of
it, it would seem that there could be
no better teacher, and yet, actually a disaster. And then exactly as you said,
I get this committed pacifist. And there you are, and you’ve
talked about your journey as a writer is really
being an emotional journey. And so you are trying to
get in touch with yourself. You have a lot of
violence in you. And she is so adamantly
anti-violence to this day, that when she read your
book in order to blurb it, she did give you the
blurb but without reading the violent parts. The first time this has
ever happened, of course, that a writer has blurbed
a book without reading it. [LAUGHTER] So there you are. So in a funny kind of way,
it is a perfect mismatch. So then you go on,
and you do, of course, what I will say many
failed writers do is you become an academic. It’s always very funny how
many– every year at Radcliffe there is a number of
fellows who applied to do such and such a
project, but then they spend the year writing novels. But there you are. You become an academic
like these many academics. On the side, even though you’re
doing very well as an academic, you persist at this writing
thing for 15, 17 years, writing the same short stories. The stories that we now
see in The Refugees. You wrote them for 15, 17 years. You go about it in
a very rational way. You have an Excel
spreadsheet for the writers and the audience. This is not the recommended way. But you’ve got this spreadsheet. You’re having no fun. Of course, I think you’ve said
yourself that you don’t do fun. – Well, I grew up in a very
Vietnamese Catholic household. We don’t know
anything about fun. We only know about
sacrifice and torture, so that was perfect
for being a writer. – So you’re having
no fun, but you’re sticking at it 15, 17
years, rewriting, rewriting with your spreadsheet. And this goes on while your
academic career is going on. And it seems like these two
tracks are completely separate. But I guess what
I’m wondering today is actually if the academic
track was key to your finally getting unstuck. You’ve talked about
the whole idea that your journey was
really an emotional journey. If, in fact–
especially the kind of academics that you
were doing over there in California where it is
so radical, whether it gave you scaffolding
for all that anger. – Absolutely. And the real
challenge was to try to figure out how to work
emotionally in both areas. As a writer, you’re supposed
to work emotionally. That’s the substance
from which you draw. And I remember another writing
teacher that I had at Berkeley, Bharati Mukherjee, reading one
of my short stories and saying, you know what, you don’t cut
close enough to the bone. I was like 19 or 20 years old. I was like, how do you do that? If I could just take a knife
to myself, I would do it. – Is that going to hurt? – But I think what
she was getting at is that what a writer
needs to draw from is the internal emotions that
go deep into your own feelings. And fiction doesn’t have
to be autobiographical, but the emotions that you put
into it come from within you. And that’s what I was talking
about at the beginning of the talk is that
I spent a lifetime suppressing those feelings,
suppressing those emotions, trying to approach my past
rationally as a scholar. So that approach did
have some benefits, because I couldn’t have written
The Sympathizer without all the rational work of going
to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, thinking about the politics
and ethics of memory. But I also couldn’t have
written Nothing Ever Dies without writing
The Sympathizer, because I was able
in Nothing Ever Dies to also tap into my emotions. And as a scholar, you’re
not supposed to do that. You’re supposed to be objective. – It’s a very emotional book. The whole tone of it is a very
take no prisoners type tone. This is not the dispassionate
scholar writing. It’s very interesting. But I was just interested
in your journey, because it’s so opposite the
way that most writers have– and I think that probably
what Maxine, I think, has spoken about her, she
starts with the emotion. And I would say that many, many,
many writers would say, well, they start with some
kind of feeling. And it’s just so
interesting that you went a completely different way. And you needed the
Excel spreadsheet, and then you needed
the academia. You need the scholarship. And then what happens after
15 years of scholarship and 15 years of banging
your head against the wall– and you’ve described
this period of your life as completely miserable. – Yes, it was. 1997 to 2011 when I was writing
the bulk of The Refugees, it really was a
horrible experience, because I was
learning how to write. I didn’t do an MFA. I didn’t have writing teachers. So I was learning
how to write, and I was also trying to learn
how to be a human being, trying to learn what it meant
to be emotionally mature, to try and investigate
how I felt about things and why I was not feeling
certain kinds of things. And that’s a very
difficult thing to do. But I think that it prepared
me for writing The Sympathizer. It was like that moment from
Karate Kid, wax on, wax off. You do this endlessly
over and over, and then, all of a sudden,
you become the karate master. So writing The
Refugees was nothing like writing The Sympathizer. But somehow, through that
act of banging my head against the wall, of
frustration and so on, when it came time
to write a novel, it felt completely
natural to do it. And I could do
that in two years. – Well, right. It was that on
one hand, but also your life as an academic,
which I will say– so you started off as someone– you’re sleeping in Maxine
Hong Kingston’s class. You don’t say one word,
which suggests a certain kind of shyness too, I will say. And then from there,
I will say, it seems that it’s your
academic life that gave you the confidence to
come to the novel, knowing what you wanted to say. – Well, let me just
put it this way. I think that one of the
reasons why I did not go do an MFA was that I
just didn’t believe in how writing is
taught in this country, and maybe it’s a stereotype. But my understanding of
contemporary American fiction, like I said at the
beginning, is that it wasn’t the kind of fiction
that I wanted to write. It was a fiction that
prioritizes the intimate, the emotional, the realistic. And all those things
are important kinds of aesthetic features, but
they weren’t necessarily what I wanted to do. I couldn’t see how I could
take those kinds of aesthetics and write a novel
like The Sympathizer that wanted to be an
angry, in-your-face novel about politics, and
a novel that would leave some room for ambiguity. But it would also
make perfectly clear what my critique of ideology
and revolution in America and Vietnam were all about. So yes, I had to become
a scholar in order to write that kind of
a book, because it’s a very different kind
of book than what might have been produced out
of a conventional MFA program. – But I think what you’re
also saying is that– I told you– I think we agreed. I said, well, let’s talk
about your nonfiction. You said, no, we’re not going
to talk about my nonfiction. There isn’t time. But I think what you are also
saying is that in your heart, you knew that the American
MFA program and approach is too individualistic for you. That it started from the self
in a way which you understood was not going to work for you. – Let me go back to
the idea of the fact that I was both an English
and an ethnic studies major as an undergraduate. English is great
for reading books and is great for
cultivating this idea of the individual literary
talent and the romantic genius, and all that is important. But being an ethnic
studies major was about being a
part of a collective, recognizing myself as
a part of something of a group in solidarity that’s
having a lineage of resistance and revolution third
world solidarity, all these kinds of things that
do not get talked about, generally speaking, in English
department writing programs. – So you went around the MFA,
very Western-oriented MFA program. And you went the other way,
and then you came back. And then you came back. And you came back,
and you came back with the kind of confidence
that came from being academic. You revisited one of your
great heroes, Ralph Ellison. I wonder if you could
just tell everyone a little bit about when you
came to Invisible Man again. So you had written a lot about
Invisible Man as an undergrad, and then, now what? – Well, it was a very
important novel for me. And there’s a lot of African
American literature, Chicano literature, Asian American
literature, and so on that was important to me
as an undergraduate and giving me a sense
that these types of narratives about
history, identity, politics had already been– people had already started
writing these kinds of things. And Invisible Man was
particularly important, because number one,
it’s a masterful novel. But number two,
because Ellison’s arguments about the invisibility
of African Americans and their
hypervisibility were very applicable to other
minority populations, including Asian Americans
in this country. So when I set out to
write The Sympathizer, Invisible Man was a model,
because he set out also to write an allegory for
African American experience. And I wanted to
write an allegory for Vietnamese
experience as well. But speaking about the
anxiety of influence, I also wanted to draw a
distinction between me and Ralph Ellison in
the book without picking a fight with him. I think one of the reasons why
Invisible Man was successful, besides being a great
book, is that in the end, the narrator of Invisible
Man becomes a revolutionary and then renounces it and
then emerges out of his hole and declares the possibility
of hope as an individual. And for me, I thought, well,
that’s one narrative that’s very powerful in this
country, but it’s not the narrative I want. My narrative is about
how, yes, revolutions do lead to disillusionment,
but that doesn’t mean we give up on revolutions. It doesn’t mean we give
up on collectivities and solidarities. So my narrator, actually, after
his failure with revolution, says, let’s recommit
to another revolution. And he embraces not
the individual I at the end of the book,
but uses we instead. Now, that’s either a sign of
collectivity and solidarity, or it’s a sign of its insanity. It works either way. And then that’s another
other way in which it also aligns with Invisible Man and
our doubts about his sanity as well. – Thanks to your work as a
scholar, when you come back and you’re looking at your
models for your novel, you have a kind of
confidence there. There is a way in which you
know what you’re going to do. It’s very interesting what
you pick for your models. Do you want to talk about that
a little bit, the big novels that you were looking at
when you were sitting down to read The Sympathizer. You’ve got Celine. You’ve got the [? Grass. ?] – Well, I was certainly
looking for big novels that tackled the big
questions in society and that were dealing
with war and its fallout and the possibilities
of reconciliation. And so for example, Celine’s
Journey to the End of the Night was really crucial,
because that was a landmark novel of French
literature in the 1920s. And when I read it
for the first time in getting ready
for The Sympathizer, I saw that in the
first 50 pages, it opens up in a Paris
cafe during World War I, then moves the trench
warfare, then goes to a French African colony, then
crosses the Atlantic to Detroit and goes back to
France, all in 50 pages. And I thought, if
he can do that, I can try to do that as well. So it was important
to try to find these aspirational models– or Dostoyevsky of Crime and
Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov and the
interrogation scene in that, Antonio Lobo
Antunes, The Land at the End of the World,
which no one, apparently, has ever read besides me. And part of what it
is to be a writer is not just to
renounce influence, but also to acknowledge and
to seek out influence as well. And so it’s crucial to
see that other people have been trying to do
this and successfully have done this work before. – But what’s so interesting
is that none of those models are American. – I didn’t think
that I was writing the great American novel. I thought I was writing
the European version of the American
novel, because to me, that was much more interesting. For me, the great American
novel, whatever that means, does typically mean something
that’s more realistic, something that affirms
the American dream. And when I say
that, I don’t mean that it affirms the
American dream in some kind of propagandistic fashion. These novels often talk about
disillusionment and alienation. But they still affirm an
American way of being, and I wanted to do something
that was much more modernist, hopefully, and also
something that was much more skeptical of this American way
of being, this American idea. That’s why I think that the
novel when we sent it out to publishers was rejected
by 13 out of 14 publishers. – Tell people about
that because you have– so you did succeed
in writing your book. Let’s not skip over that
wonderful period, though, in your writing. So your academic career has
given you the scaffolding. The emotion is coming up. It is coming up big. And there you are writing,
and it’s ecstatic. First, you find your
first opening line. Maybe you could share
with us what that was like and how long it took. – Well, it’s important to note
that I wrote The Sympathizer in two years, and it was
an ecstatic experience for the most part, except for
when I talked to my agent. And then I started
worrying about, am I ever going to
sell this novel or not? – But it’s never the
highlight of anyone’s life. – No, most writers think,
I just got to get an agent. But then when you get
the agent, there’s a whole other set of anxieties. But I spent a summer
trying to find the opening line in the opening
sequence of the novel, because I knew that
that would then set the tenor for the entire book. And that was when reading
Antonio Lobo Antunes’ The Land at the End of the World
was really crucial for me, because it’s a novel about the
Portuguese war in Angola, which is similar to the Vietnam
War for the Portuguese. But it’s also a novel
that is intensely about the voice and the style. And I knew in writing The
Sympathizer that it was not just going to be a novel
about the Vietnam War, it would be a novel
about voice and style, because my feeling was that
I had to prove something. And I had to prove something,
not just about the Vietnam War. I didn’t have just an argument
to make about the Vietnam War. I had an argument to
make about what it meant to be an Asian American writer. And that argument
was, I can do it just as well as any
other American writer, and I can demonstrate
this through the language of the book. And we were talking about
the anxiety of influence. If there’s any
anxiety of influence that’s really
evident in the book, it’s in the very language
of the book itself. It’s possible the
book is overwritten, because I’m too
anxious about trying to prove that I can master
English and write just as good as any other American author. That to me was the very
self-conscious moment of me working through
what my anxieties were and what I was trying to
both prove and reject. – And this goes back to what you
were saying earlier about never being able to forget that
you are in this context. It’s a great luxury to be
able to forget that context. And I will say that,
just as an aside, very similarly when I sat down
to write Typical American– which was right
here at Radcliffe– but also, at a time
when people did not believe that Asian Americans
could write novels. That novel just says, I
am a novel in every line, because every single
moment, I was asked, isn’t that immigrant
autobiography? Do you know what I mean? I was like, no, it’s a novel. And the same way you
have anxiety today, well, maybe I overwrote the
voice as I’m struggling to say, I can do this. Today, I think, well,
I wonder if I overdid the novelness of
the novel, because I was in reaction to something. – But even the title, Typical
American, when I encountered it, it was clearly a statement,
typical American, native speaker, things like this. We as Asian American
writers are oftentimes worried about that
anxiety of, do we belong, or do we not belong? How do we assert
our Americanness? And in The Sympathizer,
because things like Native Speaker and Typical
American had come along, I didn’t feel I needed
to do that work. So I could do something else. I could write about from
the perspective of someone who was not clearly
an American, someone who was ambiguously
Americanized, but who was also very
clearly Vietnamese. And to assert that
this was not just an American novel, but
again, a European version of an American novel that
took into consideration international politics and
the international arena, which is something that many Asian
American writers before me and the generations
before me might have been reluctant to do,
because they didn’t want to be tainted with that
association with the foreign. – And you so often call
yourself a Vietnamese writer, which I find very interesting. In my generation,
if you will, we were always very careful to
say we’re Asian American. We’re Chinese American. But you often will refer
to yourself as Vietnamese. – Well, I think the
whole dilemma in this– through your generation and
whenever I would go see– – I’m not that much
older than you. [LAUGHTER] – Let me just say, though,
when Typical American came out, it was a landmark, because–
every time an Asian American novel came out,
it was a landmark, because they only came out like
once a year or once every two or three years. I’m living in a moment
where Asian American books are coming out every week. So I think there is a
generational shift in that. But I forget what we
were talking about. [LAUGHTER] – Well, you were talking about– I don’t remember what
you were talking about. [LAUGHTER] – The Vietnamese
American [INAUDIBLE] – Why you call
yourself Vietnamese. I’m in great pains to sort of
say, we’re typical American. And you call
yourself Vietnamese, even though you go
to Vietnam, and you don’t get the Vietnamese price. There it is. – Writers of your generation– I remember this going to
many writers’ readings– would often get the question,
are you an Asian American writer, or are
you just a writer? And I think that’s
a loaded question. That’s a no-win situation
whichever one you choose, because it implies that if you
are an Asian American writer, you’re not a universal writer. But I think that
for me, I’d already seen enough evidence of
people disputing that, so I didn’t have to– I don’t have that anxiety. I can say I’m a
Vietnamese writer. And I don’t care
whether people think, oh, he’s not just a writer. He’s not a universal writer,
because in my mind, I am. – But you want to say
Vietnamese American. – I say that sometimes. – You see, they’re
interchangeable. – I say Vietnamese, Vietnamese
American, Asian American, American, or just a writer. So I think part of
what’s different for me as a writer in this
moment is that it’s possible to claim a
multiplicity of possibilities of identification as a writer
and to think of a novel that I write as being
able to function in different kinds
of traditions. So yes, it works in
an American tradition, but, hopefully, it works
in Vietnamese literature. Hopefully, it works on an
international context as well. And so we have to be
defiant about that. – So you have this novel, and
it’s written, as you have said, addressed– it was written
by a Vietnamese writer, addressed in Vietnamese. Other people are
allowed to eavesdrop. But fundamentally, to the degree
that the white audience is included, the purpose
of– they can eavesdrop, but the purpose is to
show them their privileges and assumptions,
which they don’t see. So it’s very much in-your-face. So this novel is in-your-face,
Apocalypse Now loving, white America. Take that. And so lo and behold, you put
up for auction and what happens? Because it is in-your-face,
white America and [INAUDIBLE] – Well, it was rejected by
13 out of 14 publishers. And so I’ll tell
an anecdote, which is that I had higher
hopes for the novel. I knew in writing the novel that
I was deliberately not doing what I was supposed to do as
an Asian American writer, which is, it’s OK to talk about
communist disillusionment and all that kind of stuff. But you have to end on a
note of Americanization. You have to end on an embrace
of the American dream, explicitly or implicitly. And the novel does not do that. He does not go back
to the United States. – But he said, we will live. – But where? Where is he going to go? – As he heads off to America. – But he doesn’t
head off to America. And we just see– he was
just getting on a boat. – He’s getting on a boat. But yes, American
audiences will assume, of course, he’s going to
the promised land, America. But it’s never actually
said in the novel. There’s a lot of
very critical things that are being said about
Americans in that book. But about anxiety of
influence, while I was writing The
Sympathizer, a novel called Orphan
Master’s Son came out by Adam Johnson in 2011 or 2012,
and it won the Pulitzer Prize. And so I read it. I thought it was
a very good book. It’s a book about North
Korea and a communist spy, so you can see why I was very
concerned about this book. But I read it, and I
thought, this book is written for Americans, because all
the references are oriented towards an American audience. And the ending of the novel–
sorry to give it away– is that the people who
survive are going to America. And I thought, I don’t want
to write that kind of a novel, because I can
totally see how it’s placating an American audience,
saying North Korea is crazy. We’re great. So I had a conversation with
the editor of that book. I thought, I really would
love you to buy my novel. And he said, you should
do a couple of things with this novel, including
putting in a romantic interest. In Orphan Master’s Son,
there’s a romantic interest like Casablanca. I said, I can’t do that. And lo and behold, he
didn’t buy the book. That’s what it means to
challenge majority privilege. If you don’t challenge
majority privilege, if you don’t force the majority
to question themselves, they’re much more likely to
give you a very nice book deal. I ended up being very lucky
in getting a book deal. It wasn’t that great
of a book deal. And lo and behold, the
editor who bought the book was not an American. He was English. And it turned out he
was also mixed race. I didn’t know that. So there was something, I think,
about just the inherent power of majority privilege
and identification that often makes it very
difficult for the majority to see past their own
assumptions and prejudices. – I will say that
I’ve had a very, very lucky career on
the publishing front, but I am convinced that’s
because I am a [INAUDIBLE] is headed by [INAUDIBLE] who
is an Indian American, Indian British, really. But he’s not American either. But lo and behold,
so you’ve had this– you wrote this angry book. It was in-your-face. It’s not written for Americans. You refused to conform to
the American standards, and you win the Pulitzer Prize. So now, what? It’s kind of a disaster. [LAUGHTER] – Well, it makes up for the fact
that I didn’t get into Harvard, and my brother did. [LAUGHTER] You would imagine one
person getting into Harvard for a family is enough, but
it’s not for an Asian family. You both have to
get into Harvard. But it was funny, because after
I got the Pulitzer Prize– and I learned about it,
actually, here in Cambridge– I didn’t tell my parents. Actually, it literally
never occurred to me to tell my parents,
because I thought, that would just me bragging. But a couple of days later,
my dad calls me on the road, and he said, hey, the
relatives in Vietnam called. You won the Pulitzer Prize. [LAUGHTER] But I don’t know. How do you read the
politics of prizes? It’s very, very difficult.
But one way to read it would be that, yes, the novel
is very angry and in-your-face, and there’s a lot of critiques
of the United States. But giving it the Pulitzer Prize
legitimates American culture as well. We’re in America
that allows writers to write these kinds of things. – We love it. – We love it. We love it. – We love the angry young man. We love the in-your-face,
self-righteous anger. We actually love that– we
don’t love it commercially, but we love it in
the literary world. – But if you look at some of
the writers of color who’ve won the Pulitzer over the
last few decades– we’re talking about Toni
Morrison, Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, me– three out of four are
fairly political writers who are very critical
of different aspects of American culture. So there is a certain kind of
genre of the writer of color. – There is a kind of genre. And it’s interesting
to hear you acknowledge that there is a kind of genre. I don’t mean to take it
away from you because– – I’m taking it away from me. – There is a kind of genre, and
it does serve America, finally. But at the same time,
it’s a great story. And here you are. You resist the idea that
this is an American dream, rags to riches thing. And so then you have to
hear from Terry Gross. You’re like, I’m a refugee. This is not a rags
to riches story. It is not. It is not. It is not. And she says, yeah,
but your brother did go to Harvard and
Stanford Medical School. And you did win the Pulitzer. And here you are now
having a great life. You’ve got this wonderful son. You have a wonderful new
project that involves a lot of research in Paris. Many would say
that’s pretty nice. Let’s talk a little bit
about your new project. – Well, yeah, it’s the– – Sorry, we just
have to wind up– – The sequel to The
Sympathizer, and it’s set in Paris in the 1980s. And it confronts the
fact that my narrator is half Vietnamese, half French. And I wanted to talk about
the French side of colonialism and the fact that
for the French, what they did in Indochina
is something they’ve basically, completely
forgotten and romanticized. And so it’s interesting being
a Vietnamese American writer, because at least here
in the United States, Americans have confronted
their past in the Vietnam War. Now, we can debate how
well they’ve done that, but they have confronted it. But that’s both an
opportunity and a trap. So I knew as a Vietnamese
American writer that if I wrote a novel
about the Vietnam War, there would be interest in that. But that’s a trap
too, because that’s our only way of entering
the American conversation as Vietnamese Americans is
to play on American guilt. So could I write a novel
about the Vietnam War that was not simply
about being Vietnamese but was also a critique of
American culture as well? And that was one
of the challenges. So now, the problem is with
writing another novel– the issue is, do I stop writing
about Vietnam and the Vietnam War simply because
it will simply reinforce my status as a
Vietnamese and Vietnamese American writer? Or do I attempt, again,
as with The Sympathizer, to write a novel on
my own terms, that is, yes, about Vietnam
but is also about reimagining what that means for
the Americans, the Vietnamese, and the French. That’s what’s going
to, hopefully– going to happen in the novel. – I think the
truth of the matter is that every writer has
some kind of [? doney ?] with which they must grapple. And the question is,
what did you do with it? What did you do with it? But I don’t think
there’s getting away from the [? doney. ?]
But in any case, I just have one more question. I know everyone’s very
amped up about the time. But just one more
question, and that is, since we’re
here at Radcliffe, I wonder if you could say just
a word about your Radcliffe year and how it contributed
or didn’t to– – It was a great year. I got very lucky to get
the Radcliffe fellowship. And the fellowship was for me
to work on Nothing Ever Dies. And so of course, what do I do? I don’t work on
Nothing Ever Dies. I’m sorry. What I did was I spent most of
my time writing The Refugees. But I also spent a
lot of time thinking about the book that would
become Nothing Ever Dies and doing a lot of
reading for that. And eventually, I did write
that book six years later. So the Radcliffe fellowship
and other fellowships that I’ve gotten were
absolutely crucial, because what they do is they
provide time and space where the crucial work of thinking
is allowed to happen. And unfortunately, you
can’t legislate that. You can plan for it. I’m going to finish
this book within a year. We say that in our applications,
even though, realistically, we know that’s probably
not going to happen. But we need that year– – Excuse me. – of freedom– oh, you did it. You did it. Well, that’s great. You probably got an A in
every class you ever took. [LAUGHTER] – No, I’m the one
who dropped out of Stanford Business School. – But you got into
Stanford Business School. [LAUGHTER] – Of course. I got into Harvard
Business School as well. I’m just that kind
of irritating person. – I was rejected
by every college I applied to, except one. – It doesn’t matter. You only need one. You only need one. So you had a good
year at Radcliffe and here you are back. And I think on that note,
it’s time to take questions. – Jim Haber was one of the
Radcliffe fellows of my year too. – You know him as well. – As a Vietnamese
writer, I guess it would be interesting if you
talked about your reception by Vietnamese– by the Vietnamese government
and by Vietnam in general. – Well, The Refugees was
translated into Vietnamese. And the interesting thing was
that the censorship mechanism removed an entire short
story from the book War Years, which was the only
autobiographical story I’d ever written. The overseas Vietnamese edition
will have War Years in it. I’m aware that censorship
politics and suppression of dissidents and all
that kind of stuff is a very real issue
in Vietnam, which is why I can never
go back to Vietnam and be a writer in Vietnam. The Sympathizer, when
we sold the rights to another Vietnamese
publisher, I thought, why would they
buy this book, because how do you translate this
book into Vietnam? The last quarter of the novel
is a very serious critique of Vietnamese communism. They’d have to cut out
the entire quarter. You can cut out a short story
from a short story collection, and it can still work. But you can’t cut out a quarter
of a novel and make it happen. So I don’t know. I really don’t know whether
the translation would ever be allowed and whether
the government will allow it to be published
in an uncensored manner. – Hi. I’m a high school teacher,
and I taught The Sympathizer last year to 11
and 12th graders. And it was a
wonderful experience. And one of the things
that we talked about as we were discussing the
book was the role of gender. And I just so appreciated
the interviews that you did where you
talked about how you realized your writing of
gender and the way you wanted to potentially
revisit some of those gender dynamics in the sequel. So I wonder if you
could speak to how you came to discover that
about your own writing, because it was just such a
beautiful public acknowledgment of that and where
you are now with it. – Well, going back to the
anxiety of influence question and being Maxine’s student. Looking back upon myself
as a 19- or 20-year-old, I think there’s no
doubt that part of what I was struggling with was
masculinity, Asian American masculinity but just
masculinity in general, and trying to become this
angry writer and revolutionary and all that kind of stuff. And so I wasn’t interested
in ambiguity or nuance or feminist politics
or anything like that. And that’s a real problem. And I took great
enjoyment in reading books that were very masculine. That’s why I like the spy
genre and the detective genre. And in writing The Sympathizer,
I chose the spy genre, because I like that genre. But once I chose
the genre, I was locked into many
of its conventions, especially after I constructed
my narrator the way that he was. But I didn’t feel
that I was locked in when I was writing the book. I just felt pleasure. And at a certain point
after having constructed a character who is an
alcoholic and a womanizer and a very masculine
person, about 2/3 of the way through the
book, I also realized, he’s a misogynist. He enjoys his pleasure
of women too much, and perhaps he does because
I enjoy it too much. And at that point, it was
not possible to reconstruct the novel in a feminist fashion. But I had to think about how
to work out the gender dynamics in the frame of the novel. And that’s why the
last third of the novel turns out the way
it does, which is not only about an
interrogation of himself, literally, but also about
how that interrogation pivots the treatment and the
spectacle of women. Even so, that’s still
problematic, of course, because how do you– you’re caught in this
issue of acknowledging that sexual exploitation
and rape and sexual violence have always been a part of war. But how do you talk about
it without exploiting it? But if you don’t show it,
how do you talk about it? And so the end of the novel
can be read in different ways, whether it successfully
tries to depict that, or whether it simply continues
to reinforce that exploitation. I don’t know. But again, that was
one of the reasons why I felt like I needed
to write a sequel, not only to talk
about what happens to a revolutionary
who’s been destroyed and how he rebuilds
himself, but what happens to a man who’s forced to
confront his own masculinity as well. – Thank you very much. – You mentioned your parents
several times in the podium and in the chair, and
you said a cliffhanger that I wanted to resolve for us. You said, imagine
telling your parents you want to become a writer. Well, I can’t imagine. So how did you tell
them or ask them? What did they expect
you to become? And how did they react? – Well, I never told them I
wanted to become a writer. I told them instead,
I’ll become a professor, and I’m going to get a
doctorate in English. And fortunately, I
had Vietnamese parents who were liberal in
just one respect, and that was around education. And they said, OK, it’s not
as good as a medical doctorate like your brother, but
it’s still a doctorate. Now, all you have
to do is get a job. And so literally, I
thought of my academic work as my day job, my fantasy life. What I really wanted to
do was to become a writer. So that was how I held off
my parents for a long time. It’s like the fact that my
parents are devoutly Catholic, they don’t know I’m an atheist. I don’t go home and tell them,
I’m an atheist mom and dad. That was my way of negotiating
these dynamics with my parents. – Thank you. – If you could please
identify yourself. – Sure. My name is Dan. As a second generation
Vietnamese American, I have to ask, do you
think the role of memory will change or be different
between the first generation and second generation in how
subsequent generations will relate to the fading
memory of the war? – Well, I think it’s
inevitable that as– right now, for example, we’re
dealing with third generation Vietnamese Americans. And in Vietnam, we’re dealing
with a majority population that was born after the Vietnam War. They have the right to imagine a
different kind of future that’s not tied to the past. For me, I don’t
have that choice. I feel like I’m psychically
connected to Vietnam in some way, because
I was born there. And that was one
reason, for example, why I never changed my name
to become Troy, for example. I’m still Viet. So I am indelibly
marked by that past. And I think any movement
towards the future has to be that negotiation
between turning away from the past but also
confronting the past, simultaneously. And the reality of it, I
think, for Vietnamese people in Vietnam or the country
of Vietnam, for example, is that that’s not
actually happening. The country is completely
future-oriented, for the most part, in terms of
building a capitalist society but at the expense of actually
dealing with its past. The past that it
has is completely ossified into a
celebration of communism, which totally erases people like
you and me and our families. So we haven’t yet
reached that point of being able to both
go towards the future by having acknowledged the past. – Thank you. – Hi. My name is [? Yun ?] Nguyen
and I’m a Vietnamese American. I was born in Vietnam and
moved here when I was 10. And actually, it’s interesting
he asked that right before me, because our questions
share similar themes. So my question revolves
around the trauma that’s so tied to
immigrant identities and how with your family
was tied to the war. But with the word Vietnam
shifting every day because the country in and
of itself and its culture and its people shifts every
day, how do you personally reconcile the Vietnamese
part of you that’s obligated so much to the past? How do you look forward to
the other aspect of it that’s still continually shifting? – Well I think that that’s why
I look to the next generation, because I don’t think I can. I think that for me, the past
is going to remain continually important. But what’s critical
for someone like me is to not obligate the
next generation to continue to genuflect before my
past, because that’s what I encountered in
the Vietnamese community. You would go to
Vietnamese events, and they would be
completely dominated by the perspectives of the
previous generation who would talk on and on
and on about culture and tradition and remembering
what was done to us. And I was like, when do
I get a chance to speak? So I got my chance
to speak, which means that I have to then
allow that there will be a new generation that’s
going to be saying things that will completely catch
made by surprise. And that’s necessary. That’s absolutely crucial. But also in my own
work, I think that’s why I think that it’s
important to write fiction that both addresses the
Vietnam War, for example, but tries to shift our
understanding of that as well, so we’re not stuck in the
same definitions of the past. – Thank you. – Hi. My name is Delores Johnson. I write essays on mixed race. My father’s black. My mother’s white. And I have a manuscript, which
is a multigenerational memoir on the evolution of mixed
race placement in America that was turned
down by your editor. – I’m sorry. – He told me that
it was too soft. And so my question is, how did
you get in touch with the anger and get it on the page so
that you could let it rip? How did you get in
touch with that? – Well, the anger was
actually always there. The essay that I gave to get
into Maxine Hong Kingston’s class, for example, was
about being Asian in America, and it was really angry. And then what happened was I
became a professional academic, and you can’t be
angry as an academic. It’s not going to work. You need to tamp things down,
keep things under control. And what I also recognized in
reading a lot of, for example, Asian American literature
was that there was not a lot of anger there. And I think people
had tamped it down. They recognized that
it would be easier to function as Asian
Americans in American society if they directed their anger
inwards towards their family, for example, or towards whatever
their community happens to be. And so it was liberating
for me to think that. It was crucial to not only do
that work, which is necessary. You have to be angry at
wherever the trauma comes from, even if it comes within your own
family or your own community. But you have to be angry at
the external forces that have led to that situation as well. You have to be angry at
structures and societies and dominant culture. That’s a little
bit harder to do. Because if you do that,
you’re opening yourself up to greater punishment
and censorship by the people who have
that kind of power. So not having read
your manuscript, I don’t know where the softness
is that the editor detects. But another way of
putting it is that idea, to use a whole bunch of
cliches, cut closer to the bone, don’t pull the
punches, say the things that you’re afraid
of saying, find out what it is you’re afraid
of saying and decide why– figure out why you’re afraid of
saying those kinds of things. Oftentimes, we’re afraid
of saying these things, because we’ve been told not
to say them by our families, by our community, and by
dominant society as well. – Thank you. – Hello. My name is Layla. I’m a student in Professor
Claire Messud’s Advanced Fiction Writing Workshop. Before I ask my
question, I just wanted to say thank you for all
the work that you’ve done. I used to be a refugee
as well from Afghanistan. I grew up in a refugee
camp until the age of six. At age 10, we returned
to Afghanistan, and that’s where I’ve been
living until the age of 18. And being at Harvard
has been very strange, but it’s been books like
yours that have really helped me make sense, especially
your book Nothing Ever Dies. It has informed the way that
I think, the way that I write. So I just wanted to
say thank you for that. So as for my
question, you talked about how you lacked
the emotional maturity in the beginning to
confront the things that you were writing about. So I wanted to ask, how
did you come to reach that emotional maturity? And what did that
process look like? [LAUGHTER] – There’s many, many
ways that happened. But for example,
when I was your age and trying to be a writer
and everything like that, yes, I believed I wanted to be
a writer because of the beauty of the art and everything. But I also wanted to be a writer
because I wanted to be famous. Wouldn’t it be cool
to be a writer, and I don’t know
exactly what that meant. But after 20 years of
struggling to become a writer and confronting failure and
everything like that, which was a very discouraging
experience, the positive outcome of
that is that it boiled away all the unimportant things– prizes, vanities, success,
all that kind of stuff– publications– and left me with the
importance of simply the act of writing itself. So after writing The Refugees
for 17 years, for example, I thought, I can let that go. If that book never
sees the light of day, I should be OK with it,
because it taught me how to write The Sympathizer. And that was emotional
maturity, because it was about– part of the emotional
maturity is hopefully being able to divorce
oneself for a while from the contaminations
of the world, even if one has to return
to them, eventually. The other emotional
maturity was getting married and having a child and becoming
a father, all that kind of really personal stuff. That brought me
outside of myself. That made me think about others. And I think that is one
kind of emotional maturity, and it’s completely
related to the task of writing that I
set for myself, which is about writing about others. – Thank you. – Thank you. – Well, that was a
fabulous conversation. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]

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